Linda Reynolds has issued an apology to a young Liberal staffer who was allegedly sexually assaulted by a male colleague in the defence minister’s office.
Brittany Higgins was 24 years old and in her dream job as a ministerial media adviser to Ms Reynolds when she was allegedly raped by a senior staffer after a night out in 2019.
She decided not to pursue a police complaint at the time because she felt pressure that doing so would affect her employment.
Ms Higgins has since resigned from her job in government and plans to reinstate the police complaint.
On Tuesday, Senator Reynolds offered an apology to Ms Higgins.
‘I unreservedly apologise to Brittany Higgins. Her trauma and her distress was very clear for all to see,’ she said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the alleged rape is a wake-up call that must drive change within Parliament House.
Brittany Higgins was 24 years old and in her dream job as a ministerial media adviser to Defence Minister Linda Reynolds when she was allegedly raped by a senior staffer after a night out in 2019
Mr Morrison apologised to Ms Higgins, now 26, for the way in which her complaint was initially handled.
‘It shatters me that still, in this day and age, a young woman can find herself in the vulnerable situation that she was in, not her doing,’ he said.
‘We have to do more, whether it’s in this workplace or any other workplace in the country, to ensure people can work safely in their place and be at their best and do what they went into that job to do.’
Mr Morrison said he had spoken with his wife Jenny about the alleged rape overnight.
‘Jenny and I spoke last night and she said to me, ”you have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?” he said.
‘Jenny has a way of clarifying things, always has. And so, as I’ve reflected on that overnight and listened to Brittany and what she had to say, there are a couple of things here we need to address.’
Today host Karl Stefanvoic questioned the government’s response to the alleged sexual assault following the prime minister’s speech on Tuesday.
‘This woman has gone through through an awful ordeal, and for whatever reason, it’s taken a long time for anyone in the government level to show any kind of emotion towards her,’ he said.
‘She is brave and by speaking out, she is speaking for others who have gone through stuff.
‘But why it’s taken the government so long to respond in the appropriate way… It just doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t look right and we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.’
Ms Higgins alleges she was raped on Ms Reynolds’ ministerial couch as she lay, drunk and passed out after a night out with colleagues in the early hours of March 23, 2019.
Ms Higgins pictured in front of Parliament House, excited that her career was blossoming
Brittany Higgins, then 24, has alleged she was raped by a colleague inside Parliament House in March 2019
She was found by a security guard and medical assistance was not offered.
Following the alleged sexual assault, the Department of Finance hired cleaners to tend to Senator Reynolds’ office.
Police were then forced to investigate whether attempts had been made to ‘interfere with a suspected crime scene.’
A whistleblower told news.com.au the office was ‘steam cleaned’ on the day of the alleged rape.
‘The AFP has advised Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS) that it had conducted enquiries into the action of DPS staff in the initial handling of the incident, including whether there was any criminality identified, such as attempts to conceal or interfere with a suspected crime scene,’ the DPS spokesperson said.
‘The AFP advised that there were no disclosures of sexual assault made by the complainant on the day of the incident and therefore actions taken by them (DPS) were not in response with a suspected crime.
‘At the request of the Department of Finance, DPS cleaners were granted access to the suite to conduct a routine office clean on the late afternoon of 23 March 2019.’
Ms Higgins broke down in tears as she shared her story with The Project (pictured)
Today host Karl Stefanvoic questioned the government’s response to the alleged sexual assault following the prime minister’s speech on Tuesday
Ms Higgins said she repeatedly ask to view CCTV from the night of the alleged incident but was denied access.
Weeks before the 2019 Federal election, internal Parliament House police referred the alleged rape to the Australian Federal Police for investigation.
Ms Higgins said the AFP investigators couldn’t get the CCTV footage from Parliament House of the night when she and the senior staffer entered the building.
The investigation was proceeding until a few weeks before the 2019 Federal election, when Ms Higgins said she felt like she was given a choice between justice and her job.
Fiona Brown, a senior adviser to Mr Morrison who had been seconded to Minister Reynolds’ office as chief of staff when the male staffer left, gave her a choice, she said.
She could either go to Western Australia to be part of Minister Reynolds’ team on the other side of the country – or go home and wait out the six weeks remaining on the staffer contract to process what had happened – but she would not be coming back.
Ms Higgins said at that moment she realised her alleged rape was now a political issue, and her job was on the line.
Questions have now been raised about whether Senator Reynolds (left in right image) should apologise for her handling of Ms Higgins’ allegations
Ms Higgins said her leg was ‘crushed’ during the alleged rape and took a photo of the alleged bruise in the bathroom (pictured)
She felt forced to choose between justice and her dream job – and felt pressured not to proceed with her case through the AFP, she said.
The former Parliamentary staffer broke down in tears as she told The Project’s Lisa Wilkinson of her devastating choice.
‘I had worked my entire life to get here. I wanted this future. I wanted to be a part of it for my entire working life. So yeah, I went to WA,’ she said.
In Western Australia Ms Higgins had no support network of friends and family.
She was suicidal and alone, working seven days a week and living out of a hotel room, she said.
‘I was pretty suicidal to be honest at the time, cause you’re just alone, it’s really hard,’ she said, brushing away tears.
Ms Higgins said she felt as though the decision to send her to the other side of the country had been intentional and that Minister Reynolds was avoiding her, despite having initially encouraged her to go to the police and report her alleged rape.
She said the culture of being a team player meant she was discouraged from going to the police for fear of letting the side down.
Ms Higgins (left) is pictured with Senator Michaelia Cash (right)
Ms Higgins told The Project that even though she went down the ‘right path’ to report the problem, the Liberal party was not there with real support.
When she started feeling panicked walking through the entrance of Parliament House, she alleged that Workplace Minister Michaelia Cash made it clear that she would have to suck it up and deal with it, or leave.
Ms Higgins had to resign in the end while her alleged rapist went on to get a great job in Sydney, she said.
A spokesperson for Ms Cash disputed Ms Higgins’ comments.
‘The comments attributed to Minister Cash on last night’s program are false. During her more than 18 months in the office, she was given every support in her role,’ the spokesperson said.
‘Ms Higgins commenced employment in the Minister’s office in June 2019.
‘The Minister and Chief of Staff (COS) were not aware of any alleged staff incident occurring in Ms Higgins’ previous employment.’
Pictured: Ms Higgins
The spokesperson said a journalist made a media inquiry about Ms Higgins and her previous employment in October 2019.
‘When the Minister and COS raised this with Ms Higgins she informed them that she did not want to discuss the issue other than it involved her and a former staff member in Minister Reynold’s office,’ the spokesperson said.
‘The Minister and COS said that they would respect Ms Higgins wishes for privacy but if she needed anything she should come to them. The COS and Ms Higgins discussed the Employee Assistance Program and Ms Higgins confirmed she accessed it.
‘At the end of January this year, Ms Higgins advised the Minister and COS that the March 2019 matter had become an issue and that she wished to resign and leave Canberra.
‘Both the Minister and COS advised that they wished for Ms Higgins to stay on in her role as she was good at it and they would do whatever they could to support her including relocating her job to Queensland, if she wished. Ms Higgins was grateful for the offer but declined.’
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the alleged rape is a wake-up call that must drive change within Parliament House
Ms Higgins said no consequences had come to the senior staffer who she says raped her on Ms Reynolds’ ministerial couch as she lay, drunk and passed out after a night out with colleagues in the early hours of March 23, 2019.
It was less than three weeks after starting a new job in Minister Reynold’s office, and Ms Higgins had organised a Friday night drinks event with her contacts and colleagues.
The well-connected senior male staffer had been invited in a professional context.
Ms Higgins revealed that she noticed he was buying her drinks, but she had thought he was rewarding her for having done a good job organising her first after-work function in her new role.
Soon, she was inebriated.
She was so drunk that she fell over in a ‘face plant’ and decided to leave.
The male staffer offered to get a cab with her as he was heading in the same direction – but he said he needed to stop at Parliament House to pick something up, she said.
Ms Higgins described going through the back entrance to Parliament House, passing through security and riding the lift up to Defence Minister Reynolds’ suite.
As the staffer was taking a long time, Ms Reynolds said she fell asleep on the couch.
Ms Higgins (pictured with Michaelia Cash) has since resigned from her job in government and plans to reinstate the police complaint
The next thing she knew, she woke up being raped, she said, in pain with a sweaty senior staffer on top of her, her leg being crushed beneath his weight.
‘I don’t know why I knew he was almost finished but I felt like it had been going on for a while or that he was almost done, he was sweaty, I couldn’t get him off of me. At this point I started crying,’ she told The Project.
Ms Higgins said she told the staffer to stop at least six times but he didn’t.
The male staffer left the room after the alleged rape.
Ms Higgins couldn’t get off the couch. She said she sustained a large bruise from how she was pinned down.
A security guard then came into the room but he did not call for medical help.
On Monday, Ms Higgins returned to work as did the senior staffer who allegedly raped her, and nothing happened, she said.
On Tuesday, a senior adviser to Mr Morrison, director of operations Fiona Brown, was seconded to the office as chief of staff, she said.
Ms Brown called in the senior staffer, Ms Higgins said, and after 45 minutes, he emerged from the meeting and began packing his things.
Ms Higgins was called in next for what started out as a disciplinary meeting for being inside Parliament House after hours.
She was told to sign the Ministerial Code of Conduct again, she said.
After Ms Higgins revealed her alleged rape in the meeting, however, she said the tone changed from disciplinary to ‘management’ of a political threat.
Ms Higgins said Ms Brown gave her the rest of the day off and a brochure with a number for a psychologist in the employee assistance program – for which there was a two month wait.
She was interviewed by the special internal Parliament House branch of the AFP.
Ms Higgins is pictured with the former deputy leader of the Liberal Party, Julie Bishop (left)
After the incident, Senator Reynolds summoned her to a formal employment meeting in the same room where the alleged rape occurred.
Ms Higgins said she couldn’t remember much that was said at that meeting as her mind blanked out and all she could focus on was the couch where the alleged rape took place, like a loop playing over and over in her mind, reliving the horror.
She said she asked for the CCTV footage showing the night she entered Parliament House with the staffer, but says they wouldn’t give it to her.
Ms Higgins said while Senator Reynolds encouraged her to go to the police, and said she would be supported, it felt insincere, like she was box-ticking for human resources.
She said Ms Brown became her only point of contact in the office that she could discuss the alleged assault with, but that the issue was down-played as if it was her issue to deal with alone – and that if she couldn’t deal with it then she should leave.
Eventually she resigned, losing her cherished career that she had worked all her life for.
Ms Higgins also intends to initiate a formal complaint with the Department of Finance, which handles work-related complaints from ministerial staff.
The prime minister’s office was involved in managing the alleged assault from the beginning.
But despite the engagement of at least two of his staff, Mr Morrison said he was not made aware until 24 hours ago.
He denied there was a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in his office.
‘I can assure you there there is no such culture and I’m not happy about the fact it was not brought to my attention,’ Mr Morrison said.
Senator Reynolds told parliament on Monday she never forced Ms Higgins to choose between her job and making a police complaint.
The minister also expressed regret for setting up a formal meeting about the incident in the same room the alleged rape occurred.
Government statement on incident
A spokesman said: ‘The Government takes all matters of workplace safety very seriously. No one should feel unsafe in a workplace.
‘On Tuesday, March 26, senior staff in Minister Reynolds’ office became aware of an incident that occurred in the Minister’s office outside of work hours. This incident involved two staff. It was initially treated as a breach of the Statement of Standards for Ministerial Staff.
‘After further consultation with one of the staff members over the following days, it became clear to senior staff that there were elements of the incident that may be of a more serious nature.
‘The staff member was notified that should they choose to, they were able to pursue a complaint, including a complaint made to the police, and that to do so was within their rights. They were informed that they would be assisted and supported through that process.
‘During this process, the Minister and a senior staff member met with the staff member in the Minister’s office. Given the seriousness of the incident, the meeting should have been conducted elsewhere.’
‘The Minister encouraged the staff member to speak with the police in order to assess the options available to them. At this meeting, the staff member indicated they would like to speak to the Australian Federal Police, which the Minister supported and the office facilitated.’